The thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is a chapter that is widely known, yet routinely taken out of its context. This is another situation where the arbitrary chapter breaks interfere with the author’s message. Before this chapter Paul wrote to the Corinthians to teach them that though they have different spiritual gifts, they were dependent on each other. No one was greater than another. They were all parts in the body of Christ and there was not to be any division. But the Corinthians were seeking the “better” gifts or the “greater” gifts. Paul uses this desire to move them in a godly direction. Paul is going to show them what the “better” or “greater” gifts are (12:31).
The Necessity of Love (13:1-3)
As we read the first three verses of 1 Corinthians 13, we can see that Paul uses hyperbole to teach the Corinthians Christians how a lack of love nullifies any ability or gift one has. Paul begins by supposing he can speak in the languages of men (which is what the Corinthians are desiring as the greatest gift), or even if he can speak the language of angels, if he does not have love, then all of these languages are nothing more than a clanging cymbal or noisy gong. All of those efforts are nothing but noise without love. Further, suppose that Paul had all the powers from these spiritual gifts.
Paul continues to speak in this hyperbolic language where he would have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries, and have all knowledge, and have all faith so that he could remove mountains. But if he does not have love, he is nothing. “Removing mountains” is an idiom for doing the impossible. Even if Paul could accomplish the impossible, without love then he is nothing. We must recognize what Paul means when he says, “He is nothing.” It is a powerful statement. Paul is an apostle, selected by the Lord Jesus to go with the gospel message to the Gentiles. However, if Paul does not exercise and practice love, Paul is nothing. Paul is emphasizing for our ears the necessity of love. This is a critical message that all Christians must hear. It does not matter how much good we think we are doing for the Lord and for his kingdom, if we lack love then we are nothing. Our motivation is critical toward our efforts for the Lord. The Lord cares about what is in our hearts. God cares about our motives. The Christians in Corinth are motivated with selfish pursuits. They want the gifts for themselves. They want to elevate themselves. They want to be seen by others as spiritual. Paul is telling them it does not matter what they do for the kingdom of Christ, they have it all wrong.
Paul continues in verse 3. Even if he does great, selfless acts, there is nothing gained. Paul could give away all that he has. Paul can even sacrifice his body to be burned. Paul speaks of the most extreme self-denial. But if love is not the motivation, he has gained nothing from his sacrifice. All that we can possibly do is absolutely nothing before God without love. I submit to you that the love that Paul means is a love for God that leads us to love others. People today do all kinds of selfless acts. But without the motivation being a love for the Lord, the act is nothing for God and there is no gain because all that matters in life is our spiritual standing before God.
The tongue of angels. Before we can move forward we need to deal with a false teaching that comes from 1 Corinthians 13:1. This verse is frequently used to suggest that there is a gift of speaking in the tongue of angels. Therefore, the gibberish that people claim to represent the gift of speaking in tongues is angelic language. There are many problems with this interpretation that I would like to take a moment to reveal.
First, we pointed out in the last lesson that the “gift of tongues” is simply the gift of languages. Therefore Paul is simply saying that if he possessed the languages of men and of angels. When we remember that “tongues” are actual languages, the mystery and intrigue behind the idea of tongue speaking in removed.
Second, we have already noticed that this paragraph is using hyperbolic language. To suggest that there are angelic languages would mean that it was possible for a person to understand all mysteries and have all knowledge and have all faith and be able to remove mountains from the earth. We recognize from the language used that Paul is using extreme illustrations to make his point more dramatic that it does not matter what you have or what you do, without love it is nothing.
Third, if there is such a thing as an angelic language, what would be the purpose for people on earth? Why would God reveal to a person with the gift of languages words that are from an angelic language? What is the purpose? Who is that helping? God is causing confusion. Why not speak to humans in a language that someone would understand? The reason is that they do not possess any miraculous spiritual gift.
Fourth, if there is a gift of angelic languages, why is it that every person who claims to possess this gift only speak in angelic languages? Remember that the Spirit gave the gift to the Christian (12:11,18-19). The Christian did not decide which gift he or she would receive. If the gift of speaking languages (tongues) is still continuing, why are there not people speaking earthly languages like we see in the scriptures? The reason is that they do not possess any miraculous spiritual gift.
Finally, we learned in our first lesson from Acts 8 that these spiritual gifts were only given when the apostles laid their hands on a Christian (Acts 8:17-18). Therefore, when the apostles died, the miraculous spiritual gifts were no longer able to be transferred. So even if there were a language of angels, that gift passed away with the apostles.
People key in on this one phrase, “The tongues of men and of angels” and miss the way Paul is reasoning and the point Paul is making. Paul is using the art of exaggeration to make a point that every gift and every act must be motivated by a love for the Lord.
The Character of Love (13:4-7)
Paul continues by teaching the Corinthians what true, godly love looks like. Paul reveals the character of love. This is a description of what love does and what love does not do. Interestingly, the things Paul says that love does not do are the very things the Corinthians are doing toward other Christians. So Paul is trying to get them to exercise love by stopping their actions that show a lack of love and starting the actions that show true love. As we consider the characteristics of love we must see that Paul is describing how Christians are to behave toward each other. This text is certainly useful for describing how to love in dating and in marriage. But this is not the context. The context is that this is how we are to behave as Christians toward other Christians in the body of Christ, the church.
Love is patient. The word picture is that of suffering long toward another. Love means that we will exercise patience in attitude and actions toward each other.
Love is kind. We understand what this means. Love exhibits a gentleness and tenderness toward another.
Love does not envy.The Corinthians were envious of the gifts that other Christians possessed. We will not envious of what other Christians are able to do in the kingdom. This is not a competition. There is no best preacher award or greater glory because one is able to serve as an elder or deacon in the body of Christ. We are all looking for our part to serve. Envy is unnecessary.
Love does not boast nor is arrogant. Love does not display pride. If we love each other because of our love for Jesus, then we will not be concerned about receiving recognition. We will not care that other people pay attention to us or see what we are doing. We will want to deflect that recognition to God and his word.
Love does not behave rudely. Love does not dishonor other people. We will tear other people down with our words because we want them hurt. We are not trying to be hurt others by our actions.
Love does not insist on its own way. This is an important key to harmony among Christians. We will not be self-seeking. We will remember that our lives and our worship and our service is not about ourselves. Love is not selfish and love does not seek its own benefits. Love is not demanding.
Love is not irritable. Love is not easily angered or provoked. We are not going to be set off quickly because someone makes a mistake.
Love does not keep a record of wrongs. We do not store up in our minds all the wrongs committed against us. Christians are not to be resentful or bitter, which comes from keeping a record of wrongs.
Love finds no joy in wrongdoing. We will not be happy to see others sin. We will not want to see others stumble but will want to help others spiritual grow.
Love rejoices in the truth. Love is glad to see others excel in righteousness and godliness.
The summary is simple and memorable. Love bears all things. Love believes all things. Love hopes all things. Love endures all things. We do not give up on each other. We will bear with each other, even though we make many mistakes and commit sins. We will continue to trust each other and believe in each other. We will think the best of others and possess hope for others. Love endures even when we are harmed and hurt.
Paul tells us that if we are going desire the higher, greater gifts, look to love. Love is the more excellent way that we must practice. The love of God must be the motivation for our actions. This love will lead us to love each other, not in words alone, but in our actions. Without love for God and for each other, we are nothing before God and we have gained nothing before God. Let us examine ourselves and make changes in our thinking and behavior where necessary.